Of Sea and Stars

Part 17

He was managing to stay more aware.  There was a positive and negative to that, the positive being his brain was going along it’s healing ways, and negative in that there wasn’t anything to do or look at most of the time when his eyes were open.

Roughly squared rock walls. The robust security of being inside the mountain. Inside the citadel, a place he’d stayed long enough in at a vulnerable enough time in his life for it to become home in a way station never had been.

Weird little crick in the psyche. He’d collected just enough moments of happiness here for it to have set solid. He’d realized it when he’d been here last, had known he’d brought it back up to station with him, setting that soft far off sound of fake thunder around him and the gentle patter of rain.

Ah well.  He regarded the slightly uneven ceiling. Now it was his reality again and he tried not think too much about what was going to happen next because that just got him into a whole circular thought pattern about what he’d left behind up on station and what was the point?

Really. What was the point.  Justin had always said forget the past, don’t worry about the future, just focus on now and at this very moment he understood. 

Finally.

The bed moved a little under him, and he shifted with it, grimacing at the stiffness and the phantom pains that were healing nerves. He could only imagine what horrific state he’d been in before he’d been put in the tank and he flexed his hands, too uncomfortable to go back to sleep.

He couldn’t focus enough to read a screen, and he wasn’t really sure what he would look at if he could and sometimes, really, being unconscious had its points.

It was sometime after noon and as he was counting the striations in the ceiling for the nth time, the outer door opened and Jared came in.

Ah.  “Hello.” He greeted the senior medic, ready to be mildly entertained. “Been a bother for you I’m sure.”

“Highlight of the shift.” Jared treated him somewhat with respect, as a peer really since he understood his background.  “How’s the head?”

“Still attached.” Doctor Dan replied. “Got anything to play on the screen? Underwater cam from the turbines? View of the repair pads?”

Jared smiled briefly. “I’ll see what I can rummage up for later.” He checked one of the input pads. “You cook your own spirals, doc? You’ve got healing metrics I’ve never seen before.”

“Ah.” Kurok sighed.  “Yes, well, you’d have to dig into my Interforce records for that I’m afraid. They shot us up with all kinds of things in field school back in the day.”

“I’ll have to do some research on that.” Jared said. “But right now, before it gets too long after, I’d like to ask you some questions about something that happened here.  Drake tell you?”

One of Doctor Dan’s blond eyebrows hiked up a bit. “Tell me what?”

Jared considered. “Easier to show you.” He pulled a screen around so the man in the bed could see it. “I wouldn’t usually do this, but I doubt you’re shockable.”

Doctor Dan chuckled just a little.  “My scans?” He hazarded a guess.

“I’ll show you that too since you probably know a lot more about what that looks like than I do.” Jared started a replay. “So basically, you were flatline.”

“Ah.”

“So everyone was coming in to say so long.”

“Oh.” Doctor Dan’s tone changed. “That bad? What the hell am I doing here then?”

“That’s what I want to know.”  He triggered the vid.  “See what you think.”

He watched the screen come live in front of him and saw a wide angle view of the tank room, with one occupied and the room filling up with a mix of bios and Interforce, horrified faces of sets, and the stolid lack of expression of the agents and techs.

Jess, standing square in the middle, her arms around a visibly upset Dev as though it were the most natural thing in the world, and apparently not caring if it wasn’t.

Dismay.  The gasps and moans from the sets realizing what was going on.

Dev going to the tank. Calling the sets over.

He could see Jared’s back, waiting near the life support gear, ready to remove it.

The room was full.  Jason Anders drew breath in, and spoke, his first words ringing sudden memory and then he knew what was coming. A brief, vivid flash of field school surfaced, standing next to Justin at the end of a long day, wanting nothing more than to be released to mess and bunk.

A phantom pressure on his shoulder as Justin rested his forearm on it.  In his minds eye he could even see the smudge of dried blood on the side of the hand just in his peripheral vision.

Jess speaking. “He was kin of my kin.”  Standing as family to him in the old tradition and giving him what eulogy she could on short notice as it always was.

Kurok’s fingertips twitched as he felt a mixture of embarrassment and horror listening to the accolades he should never have heard, awed at the honesty of them, doubting their truth until the last, Dev’s quiet “thank you for making me”

That, there was no doubting.

“Give my regards to dad.” 

Then Jess stood up a little straighter, and drew in a deep breath and started to sing and for a moment he forgot what the song was for in the beauty of her voice. 

He held his breath, almost.  Then had to inhale as the rest of the ops group joined in, a mixture of voices in harmony that made his skin prickle and his eardrums itch and in pure reflex his lips moved along with them as he felt the echo of that memory again and imagined he heard the ghost of Justy’s voice alongside, deeper and male but that same tonal quality.

And then it faded and he didn’t want it to, but Jared was pointing and talking and he had no real choice but to listen.

“So right there? See that? You went from flatline to this, and what I want to know, Kurok, is how.  Why.” Jared said. “How did that happen? You know better than I do what the odds were of that.”

He was still hearing that song in silent echoes. “Yes.” He finally said. “I know the odds.” He studied the readouts. “is this where I’m supposed to tell you about some out of body experience floating around touching clouds or something like that?”

“I don’t know. Is it?” Jared asked, simply. “You were dead. Then you weren’t.”

Doctor Dan shook his head a little. “I don’t know what happened.” He answered honestly. “The last thing I remember was doing some damn fool thing and falling in front of a blaster and then waking up here yesterday.”  He mused. “Jess didn’t mention anything about that.”

“It’s weird.” Jared said.

“It’s weird.” Kurok agreed with him. “But I don’t know.”  He studied the now dark screen. “Mind leaving that here though?”

“No, go ahead.” Jared pushed it a little closer. “They were joking, you know? With Drake. About that singing doing something.”

“Not possible.” Doctor Dan said. “No auditory response possible in that state.”   He shook his head. “But I have to admit it’s quite stirring. I remember learning to sing that in school.” He paused. “And once in assembly but there aren’t many voices like hers.”

Jared grinned briefly.  “Surprised me.” He admitted. “You don’t expect that from one of them.”

Echo of the song again. “She inherited it.”  Doctor Dan said.  “When he was particularly frustrated, her father used to go down into the turbine cavern and about bring the roof down singing.”

“Justin Drake?” Jared asked, his eyebrows hiking up to his hairline. “Really?”

“Really.”

**

Jess shrugged into her jacket and ran her fingers through her hair as they exited the carrier into the top flight deck at Drake’s Bay.   All the flyers left to the stakehold were there in various states of repair, and several others she reckoned were from their neighbors.

One, conspicuously, from Quebec City, it’s pilot seated on a skid, looking out over the sea from the shelter of a wing.

The entry to the cavern was open and there were some stone workers there, fixing the battered metal that once closed it, barely sparing them a glance as they walked by and once inside they were hit with a barrage of sound from repair stations.

“Jess.” Dev touched her elbow. “Look.”

Across the cavern there were three figures intent on one of the power stacks, two tall and Bay homesteaders, and one shorter with sandy blond hair in overalls like theirs.  “That one of your buddies?” Jess asked, in an undertone.

“Yes, that’s a BeeAye.” Dev whispered back as they passed, watching the three working together intently.

“Huh.” Jess grunted softly. “Interesting.”

They went through the cavern and through the hallways, emerging into the top level of the big central staircase, starting down the circular stairway amidst echoes of hammers and the smell of plasma cutters. 

At the bottom, Jess could see a group of figures waiting for them.  A mix of Bay and outlanders, a lot of long rifles cradled in arms.  Thaaat looks friendly.”

“Does it?” Dev kept pace with her as they continued down.

“No.”

“Oh.”

Jess had deliberately left her weapons behind, but aside from that she was dressed as reg Interforce, in her blacks with their green piping and thin blue neck band that outlined her insignia, and dress boots with their matte shine and at her side Dev was in her tech greens, only her sharkskin jacket non reg.

But that was okay, because Rocket had earned that difference, Jess reckoned and it fit her much better than the reg parka did.

They reached the bottom of the stairs and walked across the floor they’d both last seen covered in bodies towards the waiting group and now, closer, Jess recognized both Dee Cooper and Jean Argnaut from Quebec City mixed in with what was left of the leadership of her homestead.

She slowed and stopped as she reached them. “Morning.”

“Morning, Jess.” Brion greeted her. “Council chamber.”

“Let’s go.” Jess made a motion with her hand.

“Just you.” Brion said.

“Fuck off.” Jess responded without hesitation. “Dev stays.”

They regarded each other in silence. No one moved.  “You really want her to witness this?” Brion finally asked. “Could get ugly.”

Dev cleared her throat. “I am a biological alternative, who was born from an egg in space and after what I have seen this past half year I do not think there is anything you could have me witness that would overly disturb me.” She paused. “Unless you intend to do incorrect things to Jess, in which case I will react as my programming allows and it could get discomfiting for everyone.”

“Besides, for all you know I made her my heir.”  Jess remarked, mildly amused. “And you’ll have to deal with her owning Drake’s Bay if you splat me.” She watched the eyeballs widening.  “She’s Interforce ops. Has a citizen cred.”

There were now large clouds of oh shit floating over the group.  Brion stepped back and swept his arm out in the direction of the family quarters.  “Shall we?”

They walked down the hallway past the room Jess had been born in and turned left, down the slope past the kitchen and the family living space, all empty.   At the bottom of the passage was a large door and Brion pushed it open and then walked in.

Inside was the large space Bay councils had been held in forever,  a large unevenly shaped table in the middle surrounded by chairs, some of which had been fixed and refixed and patched a dozen times.  On the wall a reproduction of the stylized drake that was the homestead’s crest was nailed and all around the walls were plas cabinets full of records.

Jess went to the head of the table and sat down in the largest seat, in the middle. Dev settled next to her, and the rest spread out around the table, but the four big Bay guards went to corners, cradling their weapons and Jess just smiled at them.

“Okay. Let’s get this straight.” Jean spoke up.

“Shut up.” Jess cut him off.  “Let me get what I have to say said, then you all can talk.”  She stood up at the head of the table and put her hands on it. “First things first.  There’s five hundred thou cred transferring in to Bay accounts from Interforce. Should be in tonight.”

Dead silence.  “W… what?” Brion finally said.

“Compensation.” Jess stated. “For damages and unlawful attack on a homestead in contraindication of official orders.”

More silence. 

“So whatever scam you all did with Quebec or with Dee, is null.” Jess went on. “And it’s null anyway because I didn’t sign off on it.” She slowly scanned the table. “Because you can’t make the inconvenient fact that I am the Drake go away.”  She paused. “Where’s Jake?”

“We killed him.” Mike spoke up, from down the table.  “Processed him out the other day.”

Jess nodded.  “I figured.  You waste Tayler, too?”

“No.” Brion responded. “He’s a minor. You can’t proxy to him.”

Jess sat down. “I wouldn’t anyway. He’s going to Interforce.”  She folded her hands on the table. 

“So who runs the place, Jess?” Brion asked. “We killed off everyone we thought you could put in your place. Fish or cut bait. You can’t be the Drake and be Interforce and we’ve decided which way we want that to go.”

Jess studied all of them. “You want to force me to stay here?” She asked, after a long pause. “Is that what you’re saying?” Her voice lifted in disbelief.

They nodded. “Good contracts at hand, Jess.” Brion said. “That’s why Jean and Dee are here. Not because we did a scam with them. They want to partner.”

“But we want someone we can trust.” Dee spoke up. “And that’s not some half assed cousin of yours who can’t spell his name.”

Jean nodded.  “I have seen the product. Without question, you will get top dollar, and cheaper for us since we don’t have to buy from station.  Win win.”

Jess leaned back in her seat, hiking up one knee and clasping her hands over it. “Interesting.” She remarked, after a long pause. “I thought you were just going to try and kill me.” She sounded bemused.  “Instead, you killed everyone else you thought I could get to stand in for me, to make me come back here.  Flattering.”

Mike nodded. “Jake was the only one blood close enough to do a handover to. Screw that.”  He shrugged. “We want you, Drake.  Real Drake. Drake both sides who took up with us against Interforce.  Supprised they didn’t just kill ya.  That’s how they covered it? Said it was non reg?”

“Something like.” Jess agreed. “You people seem to forget though that I was the one who brought Interforce in here and gave them the keys.”

“No.” Brion shook his  head. “You just done what we wanted to. When Jimmy was dealing with them cause we knew he was.”

“We knew.” One of the collections supervisors agreed. “Saw them come in twice. Saw him go dark. We knew.” He shifted a little in his seat. “No one had the guts to report it.”

“Truth.” Ben folded his hands on the table. “But then you came in for council and we didn’t have to.”

Jess studied all of them. “I felt it.” She said, after an uncomfortable moment.

“We know you did. You went to the mess.” Brion half smiled. “You were us, not them. Jimmy was so scared he sent his family out to Quebec and then when you knew the scam he did with the scavengers you proved it. You were more Drake in that ten seconds than he’d been his whole life.”

“Hm.” Jess grunted.

“Yeah.” Now Mike spoke up again. “Just one thing we need to square with you, Drake.” He stared hard at her. “You let them go, I saw it. That needs explaining.”  He leaned forward on the table.  “Cause that, that we’re thinking we might need to kill you for.”

Silence.

“Suboptimal.” Dev finally said.

**

Now it was just Drake’s Bay in the council.  Two remaining elders had joined them, looking apprehensive and confused and six more scarred up banged up fighters with the biggest guns they could carry staring at Jess to let her know they meant business.

Jess ignored them.  She had her hands resting on the table, and her brow was furrowed as she listened to the uncomfortable conversation around her.

“Jess.” Dev leaned closer to her and lowered her voice almost to inaudible. “Is there something I can do?” She asked. “Do you need records or something from the carrier? I have my scanner with me.”

“No.” Jess said, absently. “I’m not worried about this.” She jerked her head a little at the council.

“Oh.” Dev murmured. “You aren’t?”

“Nah.”  Her partner shook her head slightly. “Wasn’t expecting their other pitch.”

Dev thought about that. “That they want you here?” She watched Jess nod. “I actually understand that part.”

Jess’s dark eyebrows lifted.

“Of course.” Dev stated placidly. “I always want you so of course I understand that.”

Jess covered her eyes and stifled a laugh.

“Was that amusing?”

“Okay.”  Brion re-entered the chamber, and put a pad down on the table. “I’ve got the cam output so let’s just review it and then Jess can explain herself.”

“Or not.”  Jess rested her chin on her fist as they all stared at her. “Kids, you can have me be Drake or not have me be Drake. There aint no middle ground.”  She reminded them. “I’m not a homicidal maniac only when its convenient.”

The guards all shifted.

Jess looked at them. “Let’s be clear.”  She said. “I’m going to kill all of you before you kill me so put those stupid things down before you drop one and it blows your foot off.”

Everyone regarded her in reflective silence for a few minutes. Then Brion just cleared his throat and started up the output, giving the screen a thump as it refused to focus. 

Dev got up and went to the display, adjusting the controls briefly and bringing the picture into clarity.  Then she went back and sat down.

“Thanks.” Ben muttered.

They watched the vid from the plant cavern twice, and when it was over the second time everyone quietly turned and focused on Jess.  “Seems pretty clear.” Brion said, briefly.  

“It is. I let them go.” Jess responded. “I wanted them to take intelligence I gave them back home with them.”

“What intelligence?”

“That’s my business.” Jess said. “And Interforces.” She added.

There was a truth to that, and they knew it.  “Can’t have it both ways, Drake.”  Mike finally said. “You were shooting at them and now you say you were doing something for them at the same time? That’s crock.”

“Sure I can.” Jess stood up to relieve the stress building in her body.  “I’m active Interforce. Even if I was shooting the bastards that didn’t change.”  She leaned on the table. “You go in with an oath, y’know. You swear you’re going to act in their best interests but the kicker is, it’s left in your hands to figure out what that is.”

‘What?” Mike and Brion asked at the same time.

Jess straightened up and folded her arms over her chest.  “Yeah. There’s a twisted comedy to being in service. But you only know that after you go in.”  She smiled briefly. “It’s a game. You try to get one up and sometimes that means you engineer what they’re supposed to think they found out from you.”

“Oh.” Dev spoke up. “Like that you let them think there were those terrible weapons here.”

Jess nodded.  “And sidetracked them from focusing on bio alts by letting them think you weren’t one.”  She regarded her partner. “They were sure the doc made a breakthrough.”

Mike looked hard at her. “FUD.” He finally said and Jess nodded in confirmation.  “Dying wasn’t better than sending them back with that?”

‘Not that one.  Brudegan goes back and delivers that message, they’ll all listen to him.” Jess shook her head.  “Now he knows that cavern is a success, and its behind some catastrophic weaponry he knows I’d use on them in a heartbeat because after all.” She shrugged deprecatingly. “I am Grandpappy Jack’s in service grandkid.”

“And you blew up Gibraltar.”  Brion now smiled a little. “There’s no weakness here.” He glanced around the council room, seeing comprehension now showing on the faces at the table. “You showed them the crazy.”

“I did.” Jess acknowledged. “And maybe tried to convince them they didn’t really want to buy the crazy and breed it.” She eyed them. “That’s the message I wanted Brudgan to deliver and he will.  He has no choice because he saw what he saw.”

“They took a piece of that rock with them.” Mike said. “I saw it.”

Jess nodded. “So did I.”

Silence.

“They replicate that, you lose big, Jess.” Brion said. “No more exclusive.”

Jess half shrugged. 

Dev shifted a little and put her folded hands on the table. “Plants take a long time to grow, and you need the proto soil.  That comes from station, and they did a lot of damage to station so I am not sure they will be able to get more easily.”

“We heard that.” Mike said. “Kids said.”  

“Will we be able to get more?” Brion mused. “This could just be a one off, yeah?  Besides, we don’t know jack about all of that and you shot the only guy left who did, Mike.” He eyed the security chief. “Interforce don’t know how to grow plants any better than we do.”

Ah  Jess felt a sense of relief relax her shoulders as she spotted a way out of the suddenly insistent desire of her birthplace to keep her around. “That’s true.”  She spoke up, reaching casually over to put her hand on Dev’s wrist when her bio alt partner looked like she was going to speak up again.  “They’re sure not going to talk to me, after what I did up there.”

“Shit.” Mike said, after a pause.

“But you know who they might talk to?” Jess said, after a pause of her own and in a musing tone as if she’d just thought of it. “The Doc.”

The silence lengthened.  “Kurok?” Mike said finally.  “I thought he croaked.” He looked around the table. “That’s what ops heard, on the wire.”

“Truth.” Ben said.  “Blew his head off practically. We saw it.”

“Tough kill.” Jess shrugged again.

“Doctor Dan is recovering.” Dev said. “I spoke with him last night.  In fact, I am looking forward to letting the sets here know he’s getting better.”

There was an uncomfortable shifting around the table.  “He’s all right.” Mike said. “What’s his gig going to be now? Back to Interforce? He’s reg. You could see it. He aint gonna go shopping for us, and by the by we need to talk about those bios you brought.”  

Jess sat down and folded her hands on the table again. “I’m not going to stick around here. “ She said, in a flat voice. “Not now. Not yet.” She took a breath and let it out.  “I can’t.”

Silence.

“I can’t.” Jess repeated. “I’m not ready for that. You’re not ready for me and what I’d do here would only fuck things up worse.”

“So what the fuck are we supposed to do?” Mike asked, standing up.  “We gotta live here!”

“I know.” Jess stood up as well. “So here’s what I got.   I’m going to put Kurok in here as my proxy.” Jess spoke into the quiet. “Because it’s the best thing to do for Drake’s Bay.”

“Jess, wait…”

“He’s smart. He knows how to mess with those plants. “ She overrode Brion. “And he’ll figure out what to do with those bios because they’re staying here.” She let her voice lift on the last few words. “We lost enough bodies for them to have space.”

Everyone looked back at her. “Oh, fuck yeah.” Mike said. “Straight out they’re staying here. Most useful fucking things to come in the place in decades.” He stood up. “We like em. We want more.”

Jess felt like a singing polar bear had just entered the council room and started dancing. “What?” She put her hands on her hips. “You’re the asshole who told me you wanted to shoot them!”

“Yeah.” Mike agreed. “Never had anything to do with them before.”

“None of us had.” Ben said.

“So what the hell?”

“They know stuff.”  Ben shrugged. “They do stuff that’s useful like fix things.”

“Screw that.” Mike waved them off. “They’re nice.” He stated. “They’re not assholes like the rest of us are and holy crap that’s a relief.” He also now stood up and put his hands on the table. “So yeah I was wrong, Drake. Sucks to be me.”

Jess looked at Dev, who smiled a little.  “Yeah. I was wrong too.” She admitted.

“That might work.” Brion nodded, and the two men next to him nodded too.  “Kurok, I mean.  He knows all about those bios. And he knows the plant stuff. Yeah.”   He eyed Jess. “And he doesn’t have the crazy.  But whats going to make him agree? He’s not stupid. He knows what this place is.”

Unbelievable throw of the dice coming up right for a change.  “I think he’ll be okay with it.” Jess responded in a mild tone.  “He’s kind of over the station. Looking for a place to land.”  She sat back down. “Don’t think he wants it to be Interforce.”

“So, good.” Brion said. “You rig that, Jess? Make it happen?”

“I will.” Jess confirmed, having already done so.

Dev cleared her throat a little. “The sets that came here.” She said. “They have programming for the plants. We all do.  They know how to work the systems in the cavern. We all took a turn on station doing that.”

“Even better.” Ben said. “We done now? I’m hungry. Let’s let the outlanders know and we can get some chow.”

“Done.” Mike said. “Good deal, Drake.” He paused, and grinned a little. “Still want you here though. That’s gotta happen.”

“Some day.” Jess grinned a little back. ‘When I’m a little less crazy.”

Everyone stood and started to file out of the room.  Dev got up and shook her head a little as if to clear it. “That turned out rather optimal.” She commented to Jess, who was waiting next to her chair. “Did you expect that?”

Jess just laughed.

**

They were in the mess hall. The sets were gathered around Dev, intently listening to her while Jess relaxed at a table nearby. 

Cathy, Doctor Dan’s lab assistant was seated next to her. “That’s incredible.” She commented to Jess.  “I’m so happy to hear he’s going to be okay.  They really didn’t think so when they brought him to the base.”

“Can never tell with people.” Jess responded. “They treating you okay here?”

Cathy smiled. “Yes.”  She said “It was a little strange at first, but after that, with us all helping out, it was fine.” She glanced at Jess. “Is it really true? We’re going to stay here, and Doctor Dan’s coming back to be with us?”

Jess nodded.

“So.” Dev was saying.  “Doctor Dan is getting well, and soon he will be coming here.”

“Excellent.” A KayTee said. “NM-Dev-1, does this mean this will be our assignment?”

Dev regarded him. “I am not sure if it will be like what an assignment has been but you will live here and work with the natural born here.”

All the sets were nodding in agreement. “This is good.” A BeeAye said  We like it here. It’s not like station at all.” He said. “They have given us nice quarters, and the meals are excellent. “

“We were given these coverings, and also, things to keep in our quarters.” The KayTee responded. “We have a sleeping space to ourselves! And it’s always the same one.”

“Yes. They do not have a crŹche, or space for a dorm here.”  Dev said. “It is excellent to have your own space. I do have the same at the Interforce base.” She smiled a little. “One of the things I really enjoy about downside is the water showers.”

“Yes!” “Yes!” A chorus of voices lifted. 

“They took over guest quarters on five.” Ben was seated next to Jess.  “Holy crap you would have thought we’d given them a million creds.”

“Literally different world for them.” Cathy said. “It’s hard for them to believe they’ve been given so much. “ She explained with a smile. “Honestly, this is an assignment most of them would only dream of.”

“They talk funny.” Ben remarked.

“We talk funnier to them.” Jess straightened up a little as she saw the mess crew bringing in chow. “About time.”

Dev could see the sets were happy.  That made her happy.  “Do you have the hammocks to sleep in? I found they reminded me of the crŹche a little.”

“Yes.” The KayTee said. “They are very comfortable, but they don’t move.”  He said. “And we can do many things here! There is a lot of equipment to fix, and we can use our piloting programming as well. It’s very good.”

“It’s good work.” The BeeAye agreed. “And the natural borns like when we do things for them and help them in any way.”

“They are not used to biological alternatives here.”  Dev said. “It is new for them as well.  You are new to them like I was new to Interforce when I started my assignment there.  Biological Alternatives had never done the tasks I was doing before.”

“You performed them with excellence.” The KayTee said. “And now we will do the same.”

“I know that you will.” Dev smiled. “And now I think we can have a meal.” She had spotted the mess crew coming in. “I have to tell you that of all the places I have been downside, this place has the most excellent meals.”

Everyone stood up to go to the dispensers, but the KayTee edged closer to Dev. “NM-Dev-1, may I ask you something?”

“Of course.” Dev saw Jess approaching from the corner of her eye.

“They wish to give us different names.” The KayTee said. “Is this permitted?”  He eyed Jess with a little apprehension. “They want them.. they want us, I think, to be different from each other.”

“Yes.” Dev nodded. “it’s a special thing with natural born.  You would be surprised what they end up calling things. And people.”  She cleared her throat a little. “At the base, I am referred to as Rocket Raccoon.”

The KayTee stared at her in puzzled disbelief.

“Doctor Dan will explain it.” Dev started to edge away towards the line.  “But it is fine, KayTee, really. If you want, you can give them your crŹche name. That also will be fine, and I think some of us have done that already.”

“Excellent.” The Kaytee looked relieved. “Did you have a crŹche name?” He asked as he fell into line behind her. “I never heard if you had.”

“No.” Dev could see Jess’s ears twitching.  “I did not need one as I was the only instance in my set.”

“One of a kind.” Jess intoned, as she passed back the rough edged, well worn plas plates. “My one of a kind.”

Dev grinned and considered the day proceeding well.

Devvie, I see shrimp on the line.” Jess said, from her higher vantage point.

Well, and getting better by the moment.

**

Time had passed, and the launch bay had regained much of the loud and random noise common to it.  On a pad near the entrance a carrier was perched, hatch open, several umbilicals attached. 

“I dunno about those new tunings.”  Doug was saying, from his position seated on the floor with a board in his hands. “It feels a little laggy when I turn starbard.”

Dev was lying on her back, her head inside a panel in the carrier. “I did not find the same.” She said. “Would you like the diagnostic outputs from this vehicle to compare?”

“Nah.” Doug was tracing at silver lead. “April thinks I’m just a ditzball driver.”  He picked up a tool and examined the surface. “Maybe I’ll ask Brent to take a drive in it. “

Dev peeked out of the panel. “He would like to give an opinion, I think.”

“He’s still bummed with no gig.” Doug agreed. “Sucks.”

Dev considered that, then just shook her head and pulled herself back inside the console and they worked along in silent companionship for a while.

She had just finished installing the part she’d been working on when she heard footsteps approaching.  She peeked out from under the metal grate and saw Jess through the open hatch and she squiggled out and rolled onto her side as her partner climbed up inside. “Hello.”

Devvie.”  Jess dropped into her seat, her hair a little windblown.  “This crate okay to fly?” She was dressed in one of her standard on duty suits, but had her outdoor jacket with her and she’d tossed it onto the back shelf as she passed.  “Hey.”

“Hey. “ Doug  picked up his toolkit and stood. “I’m gonna go put this thing back into my bus.”  He winked at Dev, then sauntered down the gangway whistling softly under his breath.

“Yes we’re fine.” Dev sat up and pulled her legs up crossed under her.  “I was just making some adjustments to the new nav mod.”

“The one you designed?” Jess’s pale eyes twinkled.

Dev made a little face in response. “Yes.” She admitted  So we are going somewhere?”

“Yep we’re up to take Doc to the Bay, and then pick up Tayler and take him to school.” Jess announced. “And when that’s done, I’m released to standard ops again.”  She did a little dance in her seat, to Dev’s muted amusement. “Hot damn.”

“Excellent.” Dev got up and brushed herself off. “When will this take place?”

“Now.” Jess glanced out the hatch. “Here comes the Doc, so get the hamsters scrambling.”  She settled into her seat.  “I’ll plug into the coordinates for the school.”

Dev went to the front of the carrier and got into her pilot’s seat as she heard a second set of footsteps and glanced in the reflector to see Doctor Dan entering. 

It had been several weeks, and though he still seemed pale, he winked at her as he came into the carrier.  “Hello, Dev.” He put a backpack down on the back shelf. “Try to be gentle, will you?”

“Of course.” Dev assured him.

“You got enough kit?” Jess asked. “They fill that sack up for ya?”

Doctor Dan came up and gingerly sat down on the jump seat next to Dev. “They did.” He answered Jess. “I have what I brought from station, and they added the basics.” He clipped restraints over him. “And frankly, I’m glad to be getting away from med here. Too many questions I can’t answer.”

“Jared?” Jess hazarded a guess.

“He’s convinced I should be a study project.”  Kurok muttered. “I told him to go find some starfish or something.”

Jess chuckled. “Yeah he tried that on me back in the day. I had to slug him to get him off it.” She pulled down her restraints and fastened them. “They won’t ask those kind of questions at the Bay.”

“No.” Doctor Dan smiled wryly.  “That they won’t.”

Dev clipped comms on. “BR270006, requesting flight access.” She hit the hatch retract. “I will miss having you here, Doctor Dan.  But I know the sets at Jess’s birthplace will be very glad to see you.”

“Mm.” Kurok made a low noise in his throat. “I’ll be glad to see them too, especially after what you told me about the Bay’s sudden reversal of generations of rampant hatred of bio alts.  I’m not quite sure I buy that.” He eyed Jess. “Based on past experience there.”

Jess regarded him from behind her console. “Thanks for taking them on.” She said, after  a pause in which Dev lifted and turned the carrier and gently glided out the cavern opening into a fog dense, but rain free afternoon. 

“Mm.” Doctor Dan made the same low noise again, and he met Jess’s eyes. “Not really sure how many other options I have.” He admitted, with one of his gentle smiles. “Or you, for that matter.”

“Truth.” Jess leaned back in her chair. “Though they’d have put you back in service if you’d wanted it.” She jerked her head back in the direction of the citadel.  Jase’d okayed it.”

“I know.” Doctor Dan extended his legs out along the floor of the carrier. “But I think I’d do better at the Bay. More challenges and less complications.”

Jess got that.   She triggered her boards and ran the checks, though she hoped she wouldn’t have to use anything on them today.  Then she pulled the navigation input over and coded in the coordinates, memorized, for their second destination.

**

The Bay was full of ships, unlike the last time they’d been there. The foggy air drifted over the water, revealing craft crossing from the sea entrance to the cavern, the debris from the war dragged clear out of the way.  Along the cliff face there were also signs of repair, and the doors to the big ancient guns were closed and sealed.

They could see teams outside working.  Small moving figures busy, and flyers overhead with hooks and cradles moving things.

 Dev curved the carrier around in an arc, and aimed for the landing bays, two of which were now operational.  “Standby, Drake’s Bay control.” Dev spoke into her input . “I copy station 2, pad 1.”

“Welcome, Dev.” Ops responded. “See ya down.”

Doctor Dan’s lips twitched. “That was friendly.”

“They think Dev flies sexy.” Jess agreed. “And they’ve never really been formal.”

“Mm.”

Jess had her boards deactivated, and she was just sitting in station, her hands folded over her stomach. “They got a lot of fixing done.” She remarked, as Dev brought them in for a landing, using her jets to ease them into the bay and onto the pad as gentle as soft rain.

“They did.” Dev agreed, as she shut down systems, glancing outside to see a Bay mech hooking them up to power.  She gave him a smile and wave, and he waved back, and winked at her and she realized it was the young man who’d inspected the carrier way back when they’d first come.

A Bay rat he said? Now he was a mech, and he’d been one of the ones who’d gone to station.  So many changes for so many people.

She opened the hatch and extended the ramp and he stuck his head inside as they were gathering themselves up.  “Hello.”

“Hey, Rocket.” He winked again. “Yo, Drake.”

Yo.” Jess returned the greeting. “How’s it?”

“Bitchin.” He responded, backing out of the way to let her exit, with Doctor Dan and Dev behind her. “Waiting for you up in the hall.”  He informed her. “Whole bunch.”

“Thanks, ya scrub.”  Jess, nevertheless, smiled at him.

Yo, like level 2 mech scrub.” He pointed at the patch on his overalls.  “I got a promo since they processed half the half, you know?”

“I know.” Jess did a fist bump with him. “Congrats.”

They walked through the cavern and through the halls, accompanied by the far off sounds of hammering and the screech of cutting steel but without seeing any other living beings. 

It seemed creepy.  Jess pushed that thought out of her mind though and squared her shoulders as they emerged onto the landing, hauling up a little as she detected the presence of a lot of people.  “Whoa.”

The entire floor of the hall was filled and as they entered, all the people there fell silent and turned to face the stairs, heads tilted back.

“Mm.” Doctor Dan grunted softly. “Could be welcome, could be lynching. You never can tell with the Bay.”

Jess went to the balcony and looked down at them, her hands resting on the wrought iron railing.  “Let’s find out. I’im not in the mood for being lynched today.”  She paused, then drew in a breath. “Hai!” She let out a bellow, the echoes reflecting from the rock walls.

A moment of silence, and then. “Hai!” The yell came back, from a thousand throats.

“Meh. Should be okay.” Jess turned and started down.

Dev and Doctor Dan exchanged glances.  “Programming really did not cover all of this natural born stuff, Doctor Dan.”

“No.” He agreed mournfully. “I never really envisioned this particular scenario.”  He took hold of the railing and started down after Jess. “Really, I never envisioned being inside this place again. Or leaving station. Or having you be as breakout a success as you were.”  He sighed. “Failure all round on my part.”

“I’m sure it will be okay.” Dev walked quietly next to him. “They really liked the idea of you coming here. I was there and heard them.”  She said. “And of course, the sets were really happy.”

“We’ll see.” Doctor Dan replied. “It is what it is, I suppose and certainly could have been far worse.”

They had reached and were moving past the fifth level.  “This is where they have the sets living.” Dev commented. “They said they liked it.”

Kurok paused and regarded the corridor.  “Guest quarters?” He said, after a moment.  “Or it was, at any rate.” He noted the newly affixed designation.  “Hum.  Spacer quarters.”

Dev studied it with interest. “Spacers.” She mused. “So that is what they decided to call us?”  She said. “Interesting.”

“Interesting.” Doctor Dan agreed. “Let’s see what else we have in store.” He started down again.  “This might not be as horrific as I’d imagined.”

There was a space cleared at the bottom of the steps and the three of them stepped into it

Jess felt it as soon as she stopped walking.  That ephemeral, extrasensory energy that was the Bay. Was all it’s history, and the self knowledge of what it was.

What it had been.

Who they were. Who she was. For a very long moment she almost reversed it all.  Chucked up Interforce.  Gave up the oath, and the crazy.

Almost wanted to just come home because in that moment she breathed it in and understood that this was hers, and home, and where she belonged.

She knew it.

They knew it.

If she stepped back now, the odds were a million to one she’d ever come to this place again, to have this, to own this place and be wanted by these people because all those odds were against her staying alive long enough to claim it again.

Was she an idiot for turning her back on this? Jess glanced aside to see Dev standing next to her, hands clasped behind her back, head up, jaw forward, ready to stand by her regardless of what fool thing she did next.  Dev would stand by her.

Would fly into danger with her. Would risk the insanity that was insertions, and single team entries into dangerous places and likely, likely die alongside her in some ultimately pointless way.

Then the time for reflection was over and several slighter figures ran forward, sets and Cathy, to greet Dan Kurok and the crowd was moving towards them.

“Doctor Dan!” One of the bios reached him. “It’s so excellent to see you!” He said. “We have so much to show you and the natural borns here have been so good to us!”

Mike, and Brion and Dan were moving forward, and it was a little chaotic.  “C’mon back to the council room so we can hear ourselves think.”  Brion said.  “Time enough for a party when we’re done with everything.”

Jess exhaled, and moved forward, touching Doctor Dan on the shoulder and indicating the way.

**

Dev let them go off, and decided to stay with the sets, and listen to their excited stories.  Cathy was there as well, and she came over to Dev.  “Oh Dev.”

“It’s very different, isn’t it?” Dev smiled.

“I thought it was going to be terrible.” Cathy confided. “It was so rough, and so horrible at first. But really they’ve turned out to be good people.” She glanced to the side, and lifted a hand to wave slightly.  “Some of them.. well, really.”

Dev was aware of the kid from the cavern standing nearby, arms crossed, a grin on his face, watching Cathy. “I find many of the people here quite interesting.” She said. “I understood a lot more about Jess after I met some of them.”

Cathy nodded.

“Do you want to see where we live now, NM-Dev-1?” One of the BeeAyes asked. “Can we show you?”

Dev nodded, and the BeeAye, along with two KayTees guided her back up the steps towards the fifth level.  They were all dressed in the Bay overalls, and the woven sweaters covered their collars as she remembered hers being covered when she was dressed as a seafarer during her first mission.

“That’s nice.” Dev indicated the sign as they went past.  “Spacers.”

“Yes.” The KayTee next to her said.  “That is what they said was different about us. That we came from space. From station.”

“Not that you are biological alternatives.”

“Yes. It’s so excellent!” The KayTee opened one of the doors. “This is my housing.” He stood back with evident pride. “Only mine!”

It was much the same as the space she’d stayed in, when they’d visited. Small and somewhat shabby, but his. More space than he’d ever had in his whole life before now. A cubby to store things in, the hammock for sleeping, the sanitary unit, and the table and chair there was already a scattering of things on.

A shell, she noted, and smiled. “Excellent.” Dev said. “I know how it feels to have this, in fact. When I was assigned quarters in the base I was also amazed to have a space all for myself.”

She thought, perhaps, that this was likely the least of the spaces available, and that the natural born had larger, nicer rooms but given what they had come from and what their expectations had been?

Yes, this was more than optimal.

“Excellent.” The KayTee agreed.  “And they call us by our names.” He took a breath, and smiled at Dev.  “I never thought an assignment would be this good. And see the coverings!” He extended his arm. “We were so cold when we got here and they gave us these so we would be more comfortable.”

The overalls were rough and workmanlike. A thick constructed fabric that provided protection from the fierce wind, and a little coated against the ever present rain and the sweater they wore along with it was an off color grey green but all importantly warm.

And, as importantly, what many others in the Bay wore. Probably these in fact had come from some of the natural born who had been made dead in the fighting.

Dev held her out her own arm. “This garment was given to me by Jess, for the same reason.” She informed him. “It is the skin of a fish.”

They all crowded into the room on hearing this, reaching out to touch the sleeve of her jacket. “A fish???” The BeeAye said, in an astonished tone. “Really?”

“Yes. A shark, which is a very large fish in the sea. It is lined, and very warm.” Dev unzipped the front and displayed the inside. “But it is good when people take care for us.” She said. “And I am very glad the people here want to take care, and make this a good assignment.”

“It could have been suboptimal.” The BeeAye observed.

“Very.” Dev said. “There was no time to make a plan.”

There was a little silence. “NM-Dev-1, may I ask a question?” The KayTee said.

“Please address me as Dev.” Dev responded with a brief smile. “And you are Kevin, correct?”

“Yes. Dev.” He said, smiling back. “Is it true you had your collar removed?” He asked. “We had heard that, from the natural born here.”

Without hesitation, Dev unfastened the neck of her tech jumpsuit and peeled it back, exposing her neck.  “Yes. It’s true.” She said “Doctor Dan removed it on station.” She paused thoughtfully.  “He did not want anyone to add programming to me who was not correct.”

The sets were nodding.

“And also, my partner Jess was concerned I could be put down by someone who knew I was a bio alt and not allow me to perform with excellence.”

“That is optimal.” Kevin said. “Do you think he will do that for us now as well?” He asked. “There are no programming chambers here.”

That was an interesting and good question. “I do not know.” Dev admitted.  “He might want to give you programming about this place, or other things. I will now have to learn everything the difficult way.”

“Do you think that’s non optimal?” The BeeAye asked “It is good to get new programming.”

Dev thought about that for a few moments in silence, while the sets waited patiently for her, as was their way. “It is good to get new programming.” She concluded. “But Doctor Dan has told me that one of the things he made different as part of my development was to make it easier for me to figure things out without programming.”

“You are new model, developmental.” Kevin stated.

“Yes.” Dev said. “So we will see if that is true, but so far it has worked out okay.”

The sets nodded. “Can we ask you another question?” Kevin inquired.

“Of course.” Dev fastened her suit back up and folded her arms.

“It’s about the sex thing.”

“Ah.” Dev felt her skin heat a little. “Well.”

“We were told you are the expert.”

**

Jess slowly settled into a chair, resting her forearms on the table and waiting for the rest of the bunch to take their seats, while Dan Kurok dropped into the one next to her.

“Having second thoughts?” Doctor Dan asked, in a mild tone.

Jess eyed him.

“Its not a bad place.”  Kurok said. “Well, now that they’ve decided to like my products at least.” His eyes twinkled a little.

Mmph.” Jess grunted, then shifted her body and straightened up in her chair. “All right let’s get this over with.” She said.  “Here’s the chip.” She stood and leaned over, putting the plas square on the table. “Interforce signed off. Once I seal the proxy, you get your head of stakehold, and I get released back into field ops.”

Eyes shifted to Kurok.

Obligingly, he stood up, and put his hands inside the front pocket of his Bay shirt. “Hello, you lot.” Doctor Dan said. “Shall we have a go at this? I’ll try not to make too much of a mess of it.”

Jess muffled a smile.

“That supposed to be funny?” Brion asked.

“No, just true.” Kurok responded mildly.  “I have extensive experience at being an Interforce field tech, and at being a genetic scientist.  Running a stakehold, especially one like this? Not so much.” He rocked a little bit on his heels. “But I’m thinking no one else here has much either, so perhaps we can all just march forward together, eh?”

The battered, weathered figures around the table regarded him in somber silence.

Doctor Dan leaned on the back of one of the empty chairs. “Problem maybe being I’m from the other side?” He asked, watching those faces twitch in reaction. “I am, you know.  I was born in a research station on the coast of what was once the North Sea.  Interforce attacked it, and I was one of only two survivors. A fourteen year old mop head they brought to Canon City.”

Jess shifted a little in surprise.  “That name doesn’t get tossed around much.” She commented.

“No.” Kurok smiled at her.  “I was too young to be put in the field program, so after they finished trying to condition me they put me in with the class of agent cadets. Which is where I met Jesslyn’s father Justin and having survived to graduation was partnered with him on assignment to Base 10.”

“We heard all that.” Mike said, brusquely. “Everyone knows Justin was all in with you.  He spliffed someone here who made a crack and put two more in med for a month. Got it.”

“Mm yes.” Kurok nodded. “We were great friends.”

“You quit.” Mike said. “Get tired of the game?”

Kurok heard the question behind the question under the anger in the voice and understood. “No.” He laced his fingers together and regarded the big security chief. “I left because Justin asked me to.” He glanced down at his hands, then back at the room.

“And?” Mike asked, leaning forward.

“And nothing. That’s all you get.” Dan Kurok met his eyes with stolid evenness and a flat tone in his voice. “You just have to know he asked and I went.”

The mystery itched at them. Jess could see it.  “I said he was family.” She said, in the same flat tone.  “Take it or leave it. Trust me or not.”

Mike studied her for a long moment. Then he looked at the rest of the people at the table. “No fucking choice is there? You got control.”

“I do.” Jess stood up. “And I give a crap enough about this place and you people not to subject you to me.” She indicated the chip. “So lets get this moving. I’ve got things I have to do today.”

And slowly then, then all nodded, as though heads were tied with strings, an odd wave of motion around the table as Brion picked up the chip and stood. “We go.” He said, briefly. “See how it works out.”

**

Jess found a plas window and gazed out it, watching the wind ruffle pale green waters in the Bay near the shore. She felt a sense of relief, of some progress however skewed and now there remained only one task left for her to do to complete the commitments she’d made.

She tapped comms. “Dev?”

“Ah, yes.” Dev’s voice came back with a tone of definite relief.  “Is it time for us to go?”

Jess’s eyebrows lifted.  “You in a rush?”

“Actually, yes.”

The brows lifted further. “I’m in the kitchen. C’mon over.” She shut down the signal with a bemused look. “Wonder what the hell that’s all about.”

“Jesslyn.”

She turned to find Brion there, looking a bit uncomfortable.  Behind him was a short, apprehensive figure.  “Hello Mary.”  She said, taking a seat on the window sill with an almost audible sigh. “You can come in. I’m not going to shoot you.”

Jimmy’s wife, widow now edged into the room around Brion, who unapologetically backed out and left them together.  Mary had a haggard, haunted look to her, and she was washing her hands together nervously. “I wanted to talk to you about Tayler.”

Jess sighed again. “Okay.” She let her hands rest on her knees. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Don’t take him.” Mary said, getting it out in a rush.  “You can make a deal with them. They want what you have here.  Leave him alone.”

Jess got up and went to the table, pulling out a chair and sitting down in it and gesturing to a second one. “Siddown.” She said. “I can’t leave him. He passed the battery.” She rested her elbows on the wooden surface. “He can’t stay here.”

“He wont.” Mary said. “I’ll take him with me. I’m going to stay in Quebec City. I don’t want my kids raised here in this place.”  She took a determined breath. “I don’t want him becoming a monster like you.”

Brave, really.  Jess just regarded her mildly.  Brave, just clueless.  “Sorry my suck ass brother never explained it to you.” She said. “He’s already a monster.” She folded her hands. “He was born that way.”

Mary stared at her. “That’s not true. He’s just a child.”

“So was I.” Jess said. “So was my father, and his father, and my uncle, and my aunt out in the hills, and ten other generations of us.” She regarded her sister in law without emotion. “School doesn’t teach us to be that way. It just teaches us to.. “ She paused a little. “Manage the crazy.”

Footsteps approached, and the door opened.  Dev poked her head in, and then pushed the door open. “Hello.” She said. “I found Tayler looking for you, Jess.”  She stood back to let the boy enter. “I told him I would help him get his things together to go.”

“Auntie Jess.”  Tayler went round the table, ignoring his mother’s presence. “There ya are. When we goin?”

“Soon.” Jess told him.

“Tayler, don’t you want to stay with your sister and I?” Mary asked. “We’re going to live someplace nice.”

Tayler looked over at her. “Wanna go to school.” He said, after a pause. “Like Auntie Jess.”

“Like your loving aunt who killed your father?” Mary said, standing up. “Why not ask her about that, Tayler? Ask her why she killed him, and you have no father now?”

He was too young for that crap.  Jess sighed internally, as the now six year old boy turned and looked at her, and their eyes met. “That’s true, Tay. I did kill him.”  She said.

He put his hand on the table and then his knee on the chair next to her. “How come?”

She heard a faint sound, and glanced up across the table, past Mary to see Dan Kurok in framed in the doorway.  “How come? Because he broke a promise.” She told her nephew. “And it was a wrong thing.” She watched the small face watching her and saw that difference, her difference, looking back.

Tayler nodded a little. “He used to hurt my sister a lot.” He said, in a thoughtful tone. “He would do things and she’d cry.” He looked over at his mother.  ‘S’good.” He looked back at Jess. “We go now?”

“Yeah.” Jess smiled at him, lifting her hand and proffering a fist.  He lifted his own hand and bumped his smaller knuckles with hers.  “Go with Dev, and she’ll help you get your stuff and you’ll get a ride with us. Okay?”

“Yes!” He turned and ran back to the door, as Dev hastily scrambled up to follow him.  Wooo!”

Dan Kurok came and took the chair Dev had been sitting in, as Mary just sat there, stunned and without speech. “That is one of the differences.” He told her, in a gentle tone. “That the battery was designed for. To find that lack of attachment.”

“He doesn’t care.” Mary whispered, her eyes unfocused, not looking at them.

“No, he really doesn’t.” Jess said. “He’d have gotten Jimmy himself.  That’s why they take us at six. Before we get hold of old uncle’s fishing knives.”  She leaned forward a little, forcing the woman to make eye contact with her. “Not your fault. You couldn’t have changed it. It’s what it is to be a Drake, both sides.”

Mary pushed herself to her feet and stumbled out, crying.

Jess sighed. “I’ll see if Jonton can keep an eye on her.” She stood up and went to the old style cabinet, reaching inside to remove two fishrolls. “Want one?”

Doctor Dan accepted the offering. “Ah, my favorite kind.” He bit into the seaweed wrapped item. “Any last words of advice for me, Jesslyn?”

Jess just laughed.

Kurok chuckled himself, after a moment. “Do you want to know why?” He eyed her.

“No.” Jess chewed contentedly. “I know.” She swallowed and winked at him. 

“I see.” He mused. “And?”

“And that’s all you get.”

**

Tayler ran towards the carrier, his eyes going everywhere as Dev followed him with a backpack and a duffel bag, the only things he’d be taking with him to school.  S’cool!” He paused near the engine pod as Dev triggered the hatch.

“Yes, I think so too.” Dev agreed, watching him go over and trace the names lettered on the outside of the carrier’s tough skin.  She mounted the ramp and a moment later he scrambled up it next to her, racing inside and then coming to a halt.  “Be careful.”

He looked around with wide eyes as she stowed his gear into one of the lockers, then went past him to her position up in the nose of the carrier.  “You can sit there in Jess’s seat if you like.”  Dev commented, as she dropped into her own and got ready to bring the craft active.

C’n I watch?” He followed her instead.

“Yes.” Dev indicated the jumpseat.  “But please do not touch any thing. It might cause sub optimal results.”

She could already hear chatter as she settled her comms rig on and tuned it. Bay ops, a young yet confident voice instructing a supply freighter in.  She paused, listening, then touched the input. “Drake’s Bay operations, this is Interforce flight BR270006 requesting departure clearance.”

A pause. Then.  “BR270006, you are cleared for exit, please have a care northeast there is other traffic approaching.”

“Understood.” Dev answered with a smile.  “Thank you Kevin.”

“You are welcome, Dev.” Her crŹche mate answered, a shared yet unshared pride in both their voices. “Please return soon.”

So excellent. 

Boots on the ramp, and she felt the rocking as the carrier deck took Jess’s weight and she closed the hatch. “We are cleared to leave, Jess.”

“Hell yes.”  Jess took her seat. “You ready there, Tay?” She fastened her restraints. “Get that belt on. You’re about to fly with Rocket.”

Dev leaned over to help Tayler fasten the jumpseat restraints. “Is everything nominal, Jess?” She glanced into the reflector to see her partner shrugging with exaggerated motions and lifting her hands. “I see.”

“Is what it is, Devvie.  Let’s get moving.” Jess relaxed against her padded seat.  “Schools waiting on us.”

“Yes. Stand by to lift.”

**

It was the first time, really that she’d flown west.   Dev had the external inputs on, and they were cruising over a shallow inland sea, the weather so far holding and only producing some small, scattered showers as they made their way towards the mountain range that held the Interforce school.

She’d seen some birds, and her sensors had detected some fish, but otherwise the trip had been empty of any ground or people. 

She had the forward screens on, though, and on the horizon she could see the fuzzed delineation that was an elevation of land.  “Are there any settlements in this area, Jess?”

“No.”  Jess was leaning back in her chair, her hands folded on her stomach.  “Some fishing towns to the west on the edge of the water, but that’s about it.”

Tayler had been napping, and now he woke, and rubbed his eyes. “We there?”

“Almost.” Jess responded.

He unhooked himself and got up on his knees on the jumpseat, looking over and through the front screen as the blur of land started to take on structure, the carrier moving towards it at just three times the speed of sound. “Oh we’re goin fast!”

“Yes.” Dev saw the comms light up. “We’re being hailed.” 

“Send our ident.”  Jess said. “You ready, Tay?”

He sat down and looked at her. “I dunno.” He admitted. “Is it gonna be weird?”

Jess swung her chair around to face him and leaned forward. “Yeah.” She said. “They’ll take you and talk to you for a few days, then you should be able to go with the other kids and it’ll be better.” She paused. “The class started ahead of you but it’ll be okay.”

Tayler nodded, with a slightly doubtful expression. “Okay.”

“Canon City control, this is BR270006, Senior Agent Jesslyn Drake in command.” Dev was saying into the comms. “We are on assignment to this location.”

They were now within visual range, and ahead of them spread a long, sloping plateau of red rock, and beyond that towering walls.  Atop them were guard stations and the flashback of plasma shields, but in the center of the wall were large doors that were open.

“Roger that, BR270006. Understand you have a delivery for us.” A voice, calm and almost gentle came back. “Please proceed to the intake and processing building, red zone, on the left.”

“Understood.” Dev slowed the engines as they came into approach, hearing the rumbling boom as they dropped below the speed of sound and dropped in altitude. 

Tayler had turned in his seat again and was looking out at the buildings. “Wow. Big.”

“Very.” Jess felt a mixture of nostalgia and good riddance as she regarded the complex.  “Plenty of space, Tay.  I think you’ll like the classes.”

The large central space had people in it.  Groups of assorted sized figures all of whom stopped and turned and stared as the carrier drifted in over them, their eyes following its progress as Dev picked her path towards the rust stained rock walls and structures she’d been directed to.

There were a number of structures, spread out around a central area of plateau with smaller structures and walls crossing it.

To one side of the red building there was a cleared pad, and she gently and precisely set the carrier down on it’s extended skids, the jets blast vaporizing the layer of water on the ground.

A group of people, waiting in the shelter of the doorway of the building started towards them.  Dev secured the carrier and released her restraints, standing up as the pilot’s chair moved back and cleared space for her.  She went to the locker and removed Tayler’s things.

Tay.” Jess said, as she released her own restraints and he came back towards her. “It’ll be okay.” She told him. “You’’ll make friends and have fun. They’ll understand how you feel here.”

Tayler nodded a little, his bottom lip poking out just a bit.

Jess hesitated. “But you’re always going to be different. Just like I was different. Because we come from Drake’s Bay. You know?”

Now, he grinned a little. “Yeah.”

“That’s okay.” Jess reached out and ruffled his hair. “A lot of us came here.  In some of your classes you’ll find us up on the vid and you can tell people, hey that’s my family.”

“Will you come see me?” He asked, suddenly, all the little boy who was scared coming out.

“I will.”  Jess held her hand out. “Just like my father came and saw me. Let’s go get you settled.”

Dev, waiting patiently at the hatch, now opened it, and stood back as the ramp extended then followed Jess and Tayler out, to where the group of people were waiting,  a respectful distance from the carrier’s blunt outline.  As she looked around, it occurred to her that the place itself was a somewhat forbidding one.

All the guards.

Nearby, a group of older teens were clustered, examining the carrier and pointing. They were wearing the gray suits she remembered the incoming new agents and techs wearing back at Base 10.

“Hello, Agent Drake.”  The tallest of the men facing them came forward and offered a hand. “It’s nice to see you again after all this time.” 

“Yeah, been a while.” Jess clasped his hand and released it.  “This is my partner, Dev.”

“Oh, we’ve heard of her.”  The man smiled and extended his hand towards Dev. “Welcome to Canon City, Dev. I’m John Callister, director of the school.”

“Hello.” Dev responded cordially. 

“And this must be Tayler.” The man said, looking down.  “Are you ready to come to school, Tayler?  We’ve been waiting for you. I heard you had a lot of adventures before coming.”

Tayler seemed unsure, but then he released Jess’s hand and took a step forward. “Yeah.” He said. “I even been in space.”  He watched as two other people, a man and a woman came forward. The man reached out to Dev to take his pack and bag.

“Can’t wait to hear all about that.” The woman said. “I’m Tracy, and I’m going to help get things arranged for you. Ready?” She held her hand out, and waited, until he reluctantly took it.  “Thanks Tayler.”

He looked behind him uncertainly, catching Jess’s eye.  She waved and smiled and he relaxed a little, then he let himself be led off.  “Bye Auntie Jess!”

“Bye Tay. Have fun.” Jess called back, and they watched until the remainder of the group followed Tracy and Tayler and they headed for the door into the processing hall.  Jess sighed. “He’s gonna have a tough time.”

“You all do.” The director said, not without some sympathy. “But you’ve all ended up walking out that gate.” He glanced around. “Want to come in for a drink? I’ve heard a lot of stories I’d like to get a gut check on from you.”

Jess looked past him, then she shook her head. “Gotta get back.” She said. “Next time.”  Without further preamble she turned and headed back to the carrier. 

Dev regarded the man briefly, then she followed, aware of a general sense of incorrectness but not entirely sure where it lay.  She entered the craft and closed the hatch.  “Was that suboptimal?” She finally asked Jess, who was slumped in her chair.

Jess sighed. “I remember my intake day.” She said. “Peh.  Get moving out of here willya Dev?”

“Of course.” Dev started that process going. “Jess, what is this facility? Is it just a school? It seems very imposing.”

Jess remained silent as the carrier lifted.  “Back in the day, in what was then called Colorado, Canon City was where they had all their lock ups.” She glanced forward. “Jails. Penitentiaries. Maximum security prisons. So that’s what that rock pile is. There are tunnels going from one to each other, and each one now holds different levels of classes.”

“I see.” Dev said, who really didn’t.

“Kids start in the easier sections. Not as scary.  As you grow, and get older and more dangerous they move you into places they can control you in if you let the crazy out.” Jess said. “He’s right. At least we Drakes end up walking out of there. Not everyone does.”

Dev thought about the little boy with the starfish and felt a sense of sadness. “That does not sound very excellent Jess.”

“Worse than being a bio alt, huh?”  Jess regarded her with a wry smile.  “I’m hoping the doc’ll figure out how to flip our bit before the next generation.” She leaned back. “If anyone can, he can.”

Dev exhaled slowly. “If he can, he will.” She murmured, meeting Jess’s eyes in the reflector.

They stared at each other for a long moment. “Maybe he already has.” Jess said.  “We just don’t know it yet.”

**

The end.